Football NSW CEO Stuart Hodge: “If we can get clarity and alignment together then I think we can see football reaching its potential”

Stuart Hodge 2

A long-time adherent of the world game, Football NSW Chief Executive Officer Stuart Hodge has been in charge of the state footballing body since 2017. His time in the role has included navigating back-to-back major lockdowns through a pandemic in NSW, with the current lockdown period beginning in late June.

The surge in COVID-19 cases across NSW left football in a tentative place nearly two months ago, but an extended lockdown has forced Hodge and Football NSW to ultimately cancel the remaining NSW-based state league seasons and its National Premier Leagues competitions.

Steering not just an organisation, but a state with such an engrained passion and commitment to football through a pandemic not once, but twice, has been a major challenge of Hodge’s time at the helm of Football NSW. If anything, leading the Football NSW family through such tough times has made Hodge appreciate the game to an even greater extent.

Stuart Hodge

Q: It’s been announced that all Football NSW seasons have been officially cancelled following a board meeting on Wednesday evening. How challenging was it for yourself and the board to make this difficult decision?

Stuart Hodge: Any decision to cancel a competition is a serious one, and one that you wear with a heavy heart. We all would have loved to have seen all of the competitions come to an end and all of the effort from the players, coaches, volunteers, everyone rewarded with a proper conclusion.

Unfortunately, the circumstances that we’re in now with the pandemic and with the extended lockdown that we’ve been in – we’re coming up towards two months now that we wouldn’t have had teams training – it’s getting later into the year and understandably without a roadmap from the government as to how sport’s going to come out of this, it was the sensible conclusion.

Really, it was the decision that we had to take. And as hard as that is, at least it now gives certainty to everybody, and we can now start to plan how the 2022 season now looks like.

We would’ve loved to have been able to play on. If you look at some of our competition structures, especially around our women’s league, we have around 80 players from the W-League playing in our WNPL which is a demonstration of what a fantastic league that is. We were facing significant crossover with the W-League, and then as every week of the lockdown went on it became pretty obvious that we weren’t going to be able to play out a season without a significant clash with the W-League.

Q: Obviously, it’s a challenging time at the moment with NSW (in addition to other states) going through a severe lockdown. How are Football NSW working to aid clubs throughout this period?

Stuart Hodge: I think the decision that we made gave our NPL clubs certainty. That’s one of the things I think many clubs wanted clarity on. Being in limbo and wondering whether you’re going to return means that they’re holding on and waiting for the decision, at least now they can take the appropriate action and move on.

We’ve revised our club entry fees to ensure some financial relief for the clubs. We’re also advocating for government support. We were successful in doing that last year and hope that further support from government will come.

And then with our association clubs, most of our metropolitan associations have already decided to cancel the rest of their season. So, again it’s about how we can support clubs to get through this period and make sure they’re strong for next year.

Q: Football NSW this week encouraged clubs to get involved in initiatives like the Club Facility Project Plan, what do these initiatives do for clubs looking to get government support during this period of financial duress?

Stuart Hodge: It’s a challenging time and I guess what has been a positive from the recent NSW Government budget is the significant investment into infrastructure. And in particular, sporting facilities.

We’re like many other states in that we have a chronic shortage of facilities, both quality and quantity. And it really is the main thing that’s holding us back from increasing even more so in terms of participation.

So, we’ve undertaken some projects including a facilities audit and facilities strategy to position us , our associations and clubs well to capitalize on some of the upcoming grant programs that the government has announced. There’s a Greater Cities Fund, a Centre of Excellence Fund and there’s a Multi-Sport Facility Fund that will all open soon from the NSW Government and we are working hard to make sure football is well-prepared to apply for those grants.

In addition to that, we have the Women’s World Cup coming and we’re working closely with the Office of Sport in proposing a Legacy Fund. And we’re working with Football Australia on that as well. It would be specific to the football community to be able to access. We’ve been doing a lot of advocating directly with ministers to really emphasise the need for investment into football facilities, and we’ve been pleased with some of the NSW Government’s grant programs in recent times.

We’ve seen a large portion of the available funds being allocated going towards football projects.

Q: How are you feeling following the announcement of the Domestic Match Calendar by Football Australia recently?

Stuart Hodge: I think it’s a really important project to undertake. Having a really fixed calendar where there’s more alignment in the game is very positive.

As I mentioned earlier, we’ve got some challenges we face in regards to some crossover with the W-League and our competition. So, we’re working to see how we can better position that. I think the Domestic Match Calendar is really important in that it gives everybody a clear view of when everybody’s playing and where they’re playing. I guess then it opens up opportunities for discussion around other competitions and where they fit in.

It gives us opportunities to build our activities around national team matches. We of course know with the Women’s World Cup coming – and once we become available again to have national teams come there – I’m sure there’ll be a lot of matches involving the Matildas and national teams will want to come and play here.

So, having that Match Calendar and that visibility is going to be very important for us all to plan as we head into the future.

WWC As One

Q: Beyond the impact of COVID-19, what are your most significant priorities for Football NSW for the rest of 2021?

Stuart Hodge: Obviously, at the moment the stability of everyone involved in Football in NSW is our priority. And making sure that we don’t leave anyone behind and everybody comes through this pandemic.

We’ve also got summer football coming up which is important for us, and that’s what we’re also working with the government on in terms of looking at how we can operate summer football.

The facility grant programs that I mentioned earlier that will open up during this year are vital for our community and putting in place a fantastic legacy program with the government will be absolutely vital.

So, I think that they’re the key things that we want to be focusing in on, not just for after this pandemic but now. Because they’re so vital to the future of the game and with the Women’s World Cup coming up, it’s really a once in a generation opportunity to capitalise on having such a massive event here.

The legacy starts now – we’ve already seen a significant increase in female players and a 15% increase in female referees.

Q: How do you see the responsibilities of the state federations evolving over the next few years?

Stuart Hodge: I think that state bodies play an important role in the whole structure of football in Australia. There was an announcement that Football Australia had made that collectively we’re looking at a review into the game and looking at how the game is operated. And I think what’s really important is that we have clear roles and responsibilities across the different areas of the game.

Every aspect of the game plays an important role. And I think if we can get clarity and alignment together then I think we can see football reaching its potential here in Australia.

Q: What do you want to say to the Football NSW community during this tough period?

Stuart Hodge: I know it’s a difficult time at the moment for everybody, but if there’s a general message out there that I’d like to say to the football community of NSW that they stay strong.

When football resumed last year and I visited clubs, the overwhelming feedback I received was how playing and being involved at a club was a huge boost to the mental health of participants.  We appreciate the physical benefits of sport, but the mental side of it is vital.

I want to thank everybody, especially the volunteers, for their understanding and patience during this difficult time and we wish everybody to stay safe as well. We can’t wait to have everybody back on the field in the near future.

Victorian initiative supports development of women’s leadership skills in sport

Women leadership

Applications for Victoria’s new Change Our Game Professional Development Scholarships Program are now open.

This will provide Victorian women the chance to build specialist skills tailored to leadership roles in the sport and recreation sector, thanks to the Victorian Government.

Offered through the Office for Women in Sport and Recreation, the Program provides grants of $5,000 and $10,000 for professional development opportunities for women working in the sector, so they can obtain and flourish in leadership roles.

In addition, the opportunity to receive personal career coaching to help women map their career paths and identify the skills they may need to reach senior leadership roles.

Successful applicants also have the chance to attend the world conference of the International Working Group on Woman & Sport, being held in New Zealand in November 2022, as part of a Change Our Game Delegation.

The group is the world’s largest network dedicated to advancing gender equity and equality in sport, physical education and physical activity.

Director of the Office for Women in Sport and Recreation Sarah Styles said in a statement that the Change Our Game Professional Development Scholarships Program pulls together a number of initiatives to provide a leadership program that is flexible and personalised – it will be a real game changer.

The Office for Women in Sport and Recreation and the Change Our Game campaign is working to level the playing field for women and girls in sport and active recreation.

This work also includes community events, research studies and sports broadcasting programs aimed at increasing the number of women and girls participating in sport and in leadership roles.

Applications for the Change Our Game Professional Development Scholarships Program close on August 22, 2022.

FIFA Technical Expert Karl Dodd: “We need to have a holistic approach to our development”

Karl Dodd

Karl Dodd’s proficient understanding of the nature of football on and off the pitch is unlike many others. Having undergone a playing career spanning the old National Soccer League, A-League, Scottish Premier League, National Premier Leagues Queensland and Hong Kong First Division, Dodd has focused his time since retirement in the early 2010s on mastering his skills and resilience as a coach.

A true believer in knowledge as power, Dodd’s professional post-playing career has seen him take on roles as Head of High Performance at Brisbane Roar alongside two separate stints at the Newcastle Jets, whilst also tackling the challenges of leading Guam’s men’s national team and his current role as a Technical Expert for FIFA.

Having spent the last few months recharging himself after some time away from the local game, Dodd speaks to Soccerscene about his aspirations to embody a generalist professional approach, his learnings from his time as head coach of Guam, and the current state of Australia’s football development system.

You’ve had an incredibly varied career in the footballing world, having started off as a player and then transitioned into coaching and consulting. Was it always an aspiration of yours to challenge yourself in multiple ways rather than just sticking to one field?

Karl Dodd: I got some advice early on in my career to have more of a generalist approach. That’s why my studies have probably taken me across varying domains so that when I am a head coach or in charge you have a good understanding of the environment and the staff that are underneath you. I just found with my playing career that there was always a disconnect between head coaches or assistant coaches and what other staff did. That was the main reason, I just wanted to know as much as I could to be well-informed as a head coach.

How do you reflect as a whole on your footballing journey so far?

Karl Dodd: I think it’s one that has been pretty expansive. I’ve been to lots of different places and early on playing was about experiencing as much as I could and different cultures and countries. And then as a coach it was getting into the hardest places where I could learn the most. It’s a new journey where you’re developing yourself to a new point as a coach, and I didn’t want to go where things were easy.

I wanted to go where it was really going to challenge me so that I could handle whatever was thrown at me – and I think that’s where I’m at. After recent coaching experiences I feel that – and I don’t want to use the word ‘bulletproof’ – because I’ve been in some of the most challenging places, I’m in a good place. And reflecting on it, I’m glad I did that because now I can handle – especially with the Australian landscape where you’ve got to wear multiple hats and work in low-resource environments – those situations.

You spent over three years as Guam’s National Team Men’s Head Coach. What was that experience like for yourself? What did you learn from it?

Karl Dodd: For me personally, it’s a test of your values and who you are as a person because you get challenged every day when you go to a foreign place and you’re trying to implement change. That was a big one in terms of who you are and who you want to be from a football point of view.

Some of the best learnings came from being involved in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and having Japan – who have a really big push in trying to win the World Cup and being the first Asian team to do so – hold a lot of conferences where they invited experts from all around the world. When you’re sitting in rooms with Carlos Queiroz – who was the head coach of Iran at the time – it’s a massive eye-opener listening to these experts from England, France and Croatia explain their development policies or curriculums and how they go about things. You just get exposed to so much more. I think also understanding the international calendar, that was something I wasn’t really across but it makes you think differently as a club coach. Like ‘what players am I going to sign’? ‘Am I going to see those young boys if they have tournaments this year’? There’s a lot more to it and that was an important eye-opener being exposed to a totally different environment. From a match perspective, the pressure to win and tactics behind each game is very different to club football. For smaller nations, winning a qualifier is massive to future games being played in that four-year cycle.

What was that experience like taking in the values and perspectives of these experts from leading footballing nations?

Karl Dodd: It made me realise just how narrow-minded we are in Australia. I believe we’re very ‘big fish, small pond’ possibly because we’re so isolated from the rest of the world. The fact that Japan wants to invite all of the countries and confederations to these meetings and conferences to try help each other develop and grow without ego and with the intent of ‘how do we become better’ was really interesting and enjoyable.

How did you go about implementing your values and desired style of play on the Guam Men’s National Team? It seems like it required a lot of adapting to and with?

Karl Dodd: It certainly was. We get taught here [in Australia] that you have a philosophy and way to play but it might not fit in with other countries. The playing style in Guam was totally different so you have to compromise because you want to get from this playing style that they’re currently doing – which may be a risk-mitigative one where they park the bus – to a ‘total football’ style where you’re trying to play football and have a go against other teams rather than reducing the scoreline.

There’s a process to that and you’ve got to find an entry point. Those players and the community and the coaches have to come along with that. If you go in too high, they won’t know, because a lot of them don’t know what it looks like and they don’t know what your playing style looks like. So, you’ve got to explain that and where we’re at and how we’re going to transition across and that takes time. It’s not just a one or two-year process, that’s a decade-long one because those kids have now got to come through. There’s a lot to it in terms of trying to implement a new style, but also a way of operating which was a good challenge as well.

Currently you’re a Technical Expert at FIFA, what does that role entail?

Karl Dodd: I was asked to come on board in the women’s game and it’s been really enjoyable. We’re working with a lot of Member Associations or countries in setting up a lot of women’s football development programs. For example, we’re working with New Zealand with their league development as they’re trying to create a new women’s league, same with Mexico and Singapore. There’s a lot of strategy behind it which is massively enjoyable because you can’t be a one-trick pony, you’ve got to go in and be adaptable in order to understand where they’re at and what are the cultural barriers or what are the limitations and how do you overcome this. That’s what we’re working on plus just growing the professionalism of the women’s game.

Throughout your journey you have no doubt experienced a variety of football cultures and technical approaches. Comparing your experiences overseas to here, what is Australia’s development system lacking and what are its positive aspects?

Karl Dodd: To be honest, maybe I’m biased here, but I didn’t think there was too much wrong previously it just needed some fine-tuning. Perhaps more from a coaching side in terms of methodologies and the way it has gone, but I think we threw out our main strengths which is our physicality and also our mentality.

I think we need to have a holistic approach to our development, not just the football training. We go off on tangents and go too far and forget about the other stuff. Maybe there’s a lot of misconstrued information from the sports science field where it feels like the focus is all about monitoring, rather than the fundamentals of building the capacity of players. If we want to get players overseas in to the top leagues – Japan train 8-10 times a week and our players at the same level are training four times a week and one of them is an ice bath – we have to build the capacity of a player in a safe-manner. Otherwise, how are we ever going to compete with these top European or Asian nations? There’s too much focus on recovery rather than the periodisation or the building of a capacity of a player in a safe-manner. And that’s probably been lost, but that’s just one example. Again, having a holistic approach to the development of a player is key and we just go off on tangents too much instead of doing the basics well and then adding to it.

For many Australian football fans and casual sporting fans, there is arguably a degree of misunderstanding about the time and planning it takes to nurture a country’s growth as a football nation. What do you feel is essential for Australian football to get right over these next few years?

Karl Dodd: Well, that’s the hard thing because there’s no real quick fix. The reality is the situation we’re in is because of what’s happened in the past. What we need to get right is that we’ve got to start somewhere getting it right, you’ve got to start implementing a holistic approach but then it takes time for players to come through that process. If you’re looking for a quick fix, I don’t know how we’re going to do that. The only way is exposure. The more games the national teams can play the better, but then that comes down to a cost and availability of players, doesn’t it? It’s the million-dollar question.

I think one of the main things is getting the right people involved at all levels of Australian football rather than repeating the same dysfunctional processes. If you’ve got people involved that probably shouldn’t be there and those that don’t have a good enough understanding, it will keep going around in circles. It’s why you find a lot of good people aren’t involved because some find it difficult to have the current system and way of doing things challenged. You want a progressive system that’s going to be one of the best in the world, rather than remaining stagnant.

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